Dear Businesslady: How Much Exploitation Is Too Much?

Dear Businesslady: How Much Exploitation Is Too Much?
"Illustration of the Imperial Excursion to see the Charini's Circus," Yōshū (Hashimoto) Chikanobu, 1886, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

by Courtney C.W. Guerra.

Dear Businesslady,

Thank you for coming back to the internet! My question is quite specific but overwhelming.

You may have noticed a roiling online in recent months following a Times article about a new publication that plans not to pay its writers. The Stopgap itself only pays in tips.

A lot of people online think you should never write for free—it’s exploitation. A lot of people think it’s fine—so long as you are conscientious about not playing into exploitation. Social media is unpaid writing. Some people think that buying into corporate media financial models can in some cases be more exploitative than writing for free, on e.g., a blog. It also limits “writing” to people with papers who can pay taxes. But I also sympathize with the idea that we need to work together to withhold our labor when the conditions aren’t good enough. Yet, here we both are, talking under our own steam, because we want to.

With all that said: Is there a cross-industry standard in mainstream American workplaces (or any other places you know about) regarding working for free? Like, in what contexts would you tell an early/mid-career person to do uncompensated work, whether that be interning, networking, fundraising, socializing (e.g., with clients), or otherwise unremunerated labor? Is there a percentage of your time to use as a rough guide or maximum?

I feel like this would also be good to know because people who don’t have any spare time to work for free or don't want to also deserve to know the unwritten conventions.

What I hope is that there is some wisdom from the broader world of work that you might be able to offer writers. Obviously there is little work to be had, and many, many writers have been laid off over the last five years, including me. So this is an old worry that is changing shape in the context of exciting new organizing projects, a lot of pent up writing, and a real dearth of proper work available.

Thank you so much for taking my unanswerable question!

Yours sincerely,

Confused and Unremunerated

Dear Unremunerated,

What a perfect question (ostensive unanswerability notwithstanding) to kick off my tenure as the uncompensated career-advice columnist on this upstart website! It’s not the first time I’ve pondered this issue, and—as is often the case when discussing foundational issues of labor and pay—I have to rein myself in before I attempt to critique the entire concept of capitalism and the indignities it imposes on everyone who isn’t already rich. Yes, my columns have always been about working within the existing system, but I’m increasingly compelled to preface everything I say with a caveat like, “Ideally everyone would be assured a certain level of base income plus free healthcare—and childcare if they need it—such that career decisions could be made 100% based on skills and personal proclivities and 0% based on financial desperation.” For whatever that’s worth! It’s nice to dream.

At its core, this question is asking, “How much exploitation is too much?” And—just like when you find out that there’s a legally permissible amount of a gross thing in your favorite foodstuff—that’s not the most comfortable thing to contemplate. In both instances, your gut instinct is to say the threshold for the bad thing should be none, and yet realistically you know that’s just not possible.

Not to get all “Webster’s dictionary defines…” about this, but the definition for the verb “exploit” is literally both “to make productive use of” and “to make use of meanly or unfairly for one’s own advantage.” If the word itself doesn’t distinguish where the line is, no wonder it’s hard to figure out when you’re paying your dues as a young professional. So I’ll start by thinking this through from the standpoint of someone trying to build their resume-slash-portfolio.

CUE THE SMOKE MACHINE: THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, IN A DISTANT PAST CALLED “2016,” I was inspired to write the column I linked above after hearing a musician say that there are only four reasons to take a gig: “for the money, for the connections, for the experience, or just for fun.” I still think that’s a productive distillation of the stakes in any career-path decision. And when you’re working for free—thus taking “for the money” out of your immediate calculus—you’re left with three more nuanced motivators: connections, experience, and fun.

Now, “for fun” is a great reason to do anything. That’s why I’m typing these words right now—I consider it a hobby. True, I’m not making any money, but I’m not spending any either (besides the nominal energy costs of keeping my laptop running, I guess). A lot of hobbies cost money, in addition to appropriating your time, so having one that’s free is kind of a bargain. (Not to mention, while I’m fortunate to have been compensated for Businessladying in the past—even getting paid to write a book, the dream!—the hourly wage breakdown on all that work is abysmal. If I wasn’t doing it for love, the money would never have been enough.) If something is fun for you—and you have the bandwidth for it—then I don’t think you need me to tell you: do the fun thing.

It’s the “experience” and “connections” parts that start to get tricky, and where there’s risk of being exploited (bad connotation). I mean, sure, sometimes you just want to know how to do something or to get better at it for reasons of your own. And sometimes you just want to be around certain people because you share a sense of purpose. But in many cases the desire for “experience” and “connections” is very closely tied to the promise of money—sweet, essential money, or more explicitly the material comforts it provides in sufficient quantities. You know, the “living” people talk about making. Yet unlike money, whose value is firmly present-tense, the benefit of experience and connections lies entirely in the future: one day this work you’re doing will help you get a new and better job; one day your expansive network will deliver an opportunity that seems tailor-made to your skillset. It’s all too easy to keep grinding away at uncompensated work based on your faith that a big reward is just beyond the horizon.

To be clear, this is a liability with compensated labor too. Some of my most timeworn professional-development guidance amounts to “take on new, exciting-to-you tasks at your current job so that you can get those skills on your resume and find a new position doing more of the stuff you enjoy.” But if you’re going above and beyond the confines of your job description, you’re basically volunteering to be underpaid for your work. There has to be a limit on how much extra effort you put in before the benefits materialize.

Now, sadly, dear Confused and Unremunerated (letter-)writer, I cannot give you a universalized and quantifiable standard you can use to draw the line. Where that limit lies is always going to be personally dependent—not just based on your financial situation but also your energy and time. But we can develop a useful rubric for finding it if we borrow a maxim from the world of recreational gambling: don’t bet more than you can afford to lose.

The “betting” in this extended metaphor is chipping away at your own resources in the pursuit of some nebulous future payoff. If you’re enjoying yourself reasonably well, or need something to fill your free time anyway, then gamble away. That’s true for a lot of young people whose free time hasn’t yet been requisitioned by routinized obligations, and more power to them. Youth, in that regard, is like finding a $100 bill on the sidewalk outside a casino: “After all…why not? Why shouldn’t I spend this here?” (Although even in this analogy it’s worth remembering that you could still tuck that hundo in your pocket and spend it elsewhere.) If you’ve got substantiated evidence that your efforts will reap rewards, that’s a solid bet too. For instance, if a publication said they’d hire you if only you had a few more bylines, that’s promising—like sitting down at the table to play a card game you’re legitimately good at.

But if you’re doing the metaphorical equivalent of hocking your watch because you’re certain this slot machine is about to pay out big, take a step back and reconsider.

When I went deep on the dictionary to make sure I had an accurate sense of “exploit,” I was so focused on its verby usage that I was taken aback by the first definition that hit me: “a notable, memorable, or heroic act.” But, oh yeah, it’s also a noun! And that kind of exploit is often how an up-and-coming professional gets noticed—you publish something viral, you tag in on an important project above your pay grade, you figure out a solution to an intractable problem one department over. The key, I think, is making sure those exploits ultimately serve you, not just the folks who might profit off your work (whether currently or in the future). If your goal is to get noticed, you need to poke your head up every once in a while to see if anyone’s actually noticing. You may have to make them notice, and if they refuse to acknowledge what you’re accomplishing, then you can always decide to cut your losses and quit. Take your talents to an environment where noticing—if not compensation—is more readily on offer.

Now, what does this all mean in the context of this here website? Well, first of all, no one is getting paid for their writing on The Stopgap, which I think makes the ethics pretty straightforward. But it provides a valuable service by giving a home to an eclectic array of pieces—it’s hard to revel in the fun of writing if you don’t have an audience. Accordingly, I’m happy to write through multi-paragraph work-advice answers for this community as long as there are questions to be considered. And I’m glad there are other weirdos sharing their work here as well. The context, community, and sense of personal connection are all crucial factors.

By contrast, if the CEO of a major media company asked me to write a single line of ad copy, I’d respond by naming my fee. Sure there are unpaid internships and volunteer opportunities and other ways that uncompensated work can happen within a system where other participants are getting paid—and sometimes those can be great for your résumé. But the same rules apply about making sure you can afford to devote your energy to them—with all the attendant privilege imbalances around who has that luxury. (Don’t make me tap my very long sign bemoaning the inequities of capitalism.)

Since I’m already calling back to old columns, here’s another one that feels relevant—specifically the headline, which still circulates in my head on a regular basis: “Time Is Money, but I’d Rather Have the Time.” One of the hardest things about the transition from “early career” to “midcareer,” I think, is losing the mindset that you have to be hustling as hard as you possibly can, lest some glorious lifechanging opportunity pass you by. And it’s not as though you wake up overnight imbued with the ability to reclaim your personal life. Once you get into the habit of working yourself to the bone, you can let yourself get so depleted that you can’t even advocate for yourself when a level-up opportunity arises. So anytime you have a choice between putting in the most effort versus a more moderate amount, or you’re deciding whether to pass on a gig entirely, do a gut check. Ask yourself whether you’re assigning yourself some present-tense misery in the service of a nebulous future payout that may never materialize.

If you can’t empower yourself to walk away, then the house will take you for everything you’ve got. The definition above is so blurry in part because capital defines productivity through monetary growth, and the easiest way to make money is by taking something from someone that they’ve undervalued. In other words: it’s unfair by design, and prioritizes a mindset of constant striving over one of contentment. The casino’s success requires you to keep playing long after you should’ve stopped. Your job is to be the smart mark who knows better.

<Dusts off hands and straightens lapels on impressively shoulder-padded blazer.> There! Now that we’ve conclusively solved the entire problem of labor as a monetized commodity, let’s get more granular for the next installment. Send me your tales of oblivious bosses, self-important coworkers, and other seemingly intractable tribulations, and I will offer all the career advice that’s fit to post.

Yours in solidarity,



Courtney C.W. Guerra chose the pseudonym “Businesslady” even though she’s spent over a decade as a writer and editor in humanities academia. She’s the author of the career guide Is This Working?  (Simon & Schuster 2017) as well as work-advice columns for some of the internet’s finest defunct websites. You can find her writing on her website and send her a tip if you’re so inclined—but if you bought or recommended her book, that would make her happy too.